Depleted-symbol-induced exhaustion: why I can’t play Disco Elysium anymore
By Carien Moossdorff
Carien is a cultural sociologist and PhD candidate at Anticiplay. She observes very serious societal processes going on in game, play, and leisure — as well as very light-hearted, playful, and joyful mechanics in earnest institutions. In her PhD, Carien investigates how games can allow us to engage emotionally with transformations.
This article contains major spoilers for the game Disco Elysium: consider this your SPOILER WARNING before you continue reading!
To my own deep sadness — and in contrast to other Anticiplay team members — I don’t like playing the excellent game that is Disco Elysium. This surprised me, because my experience with and love for Live Action Role Playing (LARP) got me very excited about a free-roaming, psychologically complex mystery game. In this piece, I explore why I didn’t manage to enjoy Disco Elysium, to eventually turn to my social-science-upbringing: how can sociological theory help us design better games? Here, a disclaimer might be in order: this is not an attempt to delegitimize Disco Elysium. It is good. It is seriously good. It is thoughtful, well-crafted, and funny. It is complex and consistent and it has beautiful characterization. It is uncomfortable and challenging, and brutally committed to its style choices. It is simply my loss that a game so good doesn’t resonate with me.
But why does this matter at all? I am, in the end, just one consumer and you can’t please everyone. This is true, and nothing about Disco Elysium should change on my behalf, or at all. However, figuring out how different (potential) gamers respond to games, will help us build a new games world that is inclusive to a wide range of people. If we want to reach out to a wider audience for better futures; if we want to understand what makes all the game-playing people tick; if we want to flat out sell more games — we need to know what is going on with players like me. Players who are infinitely casual, players who wander around aimlessly, players who have sunk their hours into builders and management games and simulations. A different blogpost will give me more space to consider different types of gamers, so I will save that for another time. Today, I will just hint at that by discovering why I didn’t enjoy Disco Elysium, and how I would have. Today, I will just say that I suspect that I’m not as alone as I feel in ‘my’ gamer type.
Getting to it, what’s not to love about Disco Elysium? In the first place: minor annoyances. As much as I enjoyed its freedom to explore, I balked at the limits that very freedom made me run into. For example, a payphone I had discovered turned out to be available for ‘random’ (ahem, ahem, psychological mystery plot hook) number-dialing only, not for actually typing in a number that I had. In print. On a card. In my pocket. The delicious freedom to explore also meant that I had to walk around a lot; fast-travel exists, but only to and from hyper-specific points on the map, defeating the purpose almost entirely. A white check opens up? I spend ten minutes getting to the nearest fast-travel point, fast-traveling to another point, crawling through a labyrinth of abandoned commercial units (admittedly, very cool), only to finally get there and fail the check again. Reverse, repeat.
In the second place: bad choices and bad luck. When I started this game, I had been reading a book about Dark Play, and decided to see if playing as a fascist would affect my emotional experience and moral reflection. I don’t want to spoil too much for you, in case you want to try this at home (don’t), but yes. It fucking obviously does, and not in a good way. Honestly, not even in a good roleplay kind of way. On the one hand, it broke my heart to say racist things to co-worker Kim. On the other, I can’t lie for convenience’s sake in a text-based game — what you see is what you get. And, most terribly: I can’t improvise. At several points, the game completely betrayed my grueling efforts to play the character this way, by letting the fascist dialogue options just… dry up! Not wanting to abandon most conversations, I would just pick another available option. This landed me a godforsaken ‘Middle of the road cop’ achievement on Steam for this game! Likewise, I had some bad luck with die checks, and at some points that left me with actually nothing to do. I would just resort to any dialogue options or checks that were available, which on several occasions clearly cut short storylines that I was really into.
So far my annoyances. On to the profound, structural issue I have with Disco Elysium. Mostly, and most honestly, I didn’t enjoy the massive and, in my experience, strongly lumped amounts of reading. Incredibly bulky and important conversations would hide behind the least important looking NPC (including objects, and I do adore that objects are on par with human NPCs in this game). Several times when I thought, I will do one more conversation with an unimportant NPC for ten minutes and then go to bed on time, one seemingly unimportant line actually unlocked nine more conversation options that would keep me going for another forty-five minutes. This made me dread playing the game unless I had unlimited amounts of time ahead of me. This made me not play the game. Me not playing the game made me dread picking it up, because of the inevitable cascades of reading that would now be extra difficult to comprehend after I forgot most of the context. All of this made me rush through certain dialogues just to get it over with.
But seriously, what is even going on here? In LARP, I’ve spent hours in conversations just like the ones in Disco Elysium — although, frankly, usually much more boring and less stylized. And I loved those. So it simply cannot be the presence of many words that is bothering me. In LARP, I’ve been kept up past bedtime by pointless reminiscing; casual compliments have turned into exposition bombs; tragic backstories were dumped on me and I didn’t hate it — or, well, not as much as I did in Disco Elysium, anyway. Why is endless talking fun to me on one medium of play, and not fun on the other — even when its literary execution is objectively better?
After frantically pondering this problem for months, I finally realized that I am a social scientist and can usually turn to theory to make provisional peace with the mysteries of the world.
In this case, one of my very favorite theories came to my rescue: Randall Collins’ ‘Interaction Ritual Chains’. In an Interaction Ritual (IR), several people come together, in such a way that it is more or less clear what and who is and isn’t a part of it. The people focus on the same thing, and share more or less the same mood — this reinforces each other in ‘rhythmic entrainment’. All of this can build up to such an amount that participants can feel the group: they feel part of it, they share symbols of this moment that they all understand, they share what’s right and wrong here, and individually they feel full of ‘emotional energy’.
You have probably experienced this on the dancefloor at a concert, dancing, clapping, or singing. And suddenly, you’re smiling at the person next to you. And when that one drunk guy starts throwing beer at the stage, everybody agrees that he should be nudged to the side and to some water. And when the lights go on, you don’t want to go home — you want to go to the next place, and all your friends should come too (this is the emotional energy speaking)! And then, when a person sits next to you a month later and they are wearing a t-shirt from that show, it is so easy to start smiling again, and to talk about how great it was. The emotional energy is stored in that symbol. And this happens much more often, on all sorts of scales. That phone call, that you meant to make real quick, but then you get into funny stories and you both get into a rhythm and you just keep going — and you feel good afterwards, and part of it. Intense discussions at work; political revolts; board games; college tutorials; every scene in ‘High School Musical’ — or so I’ve heard.
However, not all Interaction Rituals are nice and wholesome. Violent encounters can be successful in IR terms. So can bullying, destructive drug use, and sarcasm. Totalitarian regimes have excelled at facilitating very effective IRs. In addition, not all Interaction Rituals, wholesome or otherwise, are successful. Some rallies and services just aren’t that engaging. Some birthday parties don’t build up a flow of conversation. Some contests don’t gather the audience’s focus all that well. According to Collins, IRs fail when (some or all of) the ingredients are insufficiently present, in an unspecified amount. Focus and mood fail to build up through rhythmic entrainment, or: we don’t shake our fists and shout or sway to the songs, we don’t hasten to take turns speaking and laughing, we don’t collectively lift our bodies from our seats to see better. The result: we feel drained. We don’t get any of those pleasant, energizing outcomes (sense of belonging to the group, of a shared morality, of emotional energy, and shared symbols). We are deterred from keeping the action going. We trail off.
When discussing this 2004-published theory, my students have often scoffed at Collins’ notion that the internet is not an adequate replacement for physical gatherings. I wonder how they feel after a year and a half of Covid and can only hope they were right. At least they were right to some extent! IRs happen in the chats of popular streams. They may happen when friends gather around consoles or kitchen tables to play video games together. They may happen over Discord. Moreover, games have all the ingredients for good IRs. People gather (if virtually rather than physically) with clear boundaries to outsiders, they focus on the same thing, and they build up a pace together. When done right, any video game has the potential for an almost infinite number of successful Interaction Rituals.
We need to use this more, and we want to use this more.
We want to use Interaction Rituals more, first, because this solves the puzzle of why I didn’t enjoy Disco Elysium. The game hints at Interaction Rituals, with all of its conversations, and with its amazing voice acting. But they never materialize in the game — because the pacing is fake. I don’t hear my own voice. After (or even when, sorry!) an NPC speaks, I will spend a long time reading, rather than responding right away, which would build up that rhythmic entrainment. The plot and world-building is full of very intense IRs, from revolution, murder, and negotiation to co-worker disputes, sex, and karaoke. But except for conversations, we don’t experience any of it. All we get are the symbols. And even the symbols are depleted, worn out, and they work part-time as symbols for the failure of all the grand gestures.
Almost every character in the game, except perhaps for Kim and the cryptozoologist, is obviously dragged down by an endless chain of unsuccessful Interaction Rituals in their past. They lack all trace of emotional energy, moral or social cohesion, of shared powerful symbols. They are lethargic and tired. As a literary experience, I find that quite beautiful. I loved that the icons of the revolution were seen in chipped busts and on yellowed posters. There are symbols for everything, and all of them have become empty and sad: From the half-statue for the monarchy that is mocked even by the game mechanics, to the abandoned world-building mood board for an elaborate role-playing game. Hence, Disco Elysium is a virtual testament to the importance and effect of rituals, a story of what happens when too many fail. Martinaise scrambles for cohesion, for willpower, for meaning, and for morality.
But as a game experience, I find that draining. I find all of those ‘Interaction Rituals’, if we should call them that, with the NPCs, quite exhausting. They take up a lot of time, the pacing doesn’t bring me excitement, they hardly ever seem to care (focus!) about the topic we are discussing. I almost never leave with that sweet sense of belonging and purpose. Not even anger and animosity. This makes sense, coming from the theory. That part of the model where that energy builds up, the rhythmic entrainment, it cannot quite be there in a point-and-click dialogue system. The NPCs and I, we can’t surprise each other, we can’t build each other up by vigorous nodding and we can’t mutually intimidate by squaring our shoulders more and more. In some cases, this does happen, like in the chaotic and gripping shoot-out. Though, I believe that I would be able to enjoy the game to a greater extent, if more of the symbols you come across as a player, would be symbols from successful rituals. The moments where NPCs share fond memories, even of playing a racist board game, are the ones that make you feel with them, the moments where they come alive the most.
Again, this is quite possibly a testament to Disco Elysium’s writing — all of these characters are empty, drained, worn out. In the case of Disco Elysium, this has clearly been an intentional style choice and it doesn’t take away from the quality of the product, even if the play experience is not what I’m looking for. But what is a not-for-me style choice in this instance, can shed a light on how play experiences come about, actually. Going through a series of draining rituals and symbols doesn’t energize me, as a player, to keep going with the game (or anything, really). This works for Disco Elysium, but that is not the experience most games try to facilitate. For all the effort that has been put into making individual players feel like they have agency, an even stronger connection to the game experience may come from making them feel like part of group agency. Additionally, even my minor grievances with the game can be read through this Interaction Ritual lens. Not being able to play a character consistently leads to a distorted individual: the outcome of a chain of mismatching IRs, a quilt of different symbols and moralities. Stark reminders of the parameters and affordances of the medium itself, pulls you out of the game-world IRs, muddling your focus and mood and distorting the ritual’s boundaries.
In short, we want to use the principles of Interaction Rituals more, simply because successful IRs keep people emotionally involved with a game, and motivated to come back to it, or to hop on the next game. This is, of course, easier to accomplish with multiplayer games — Minecraft and Fortnight excel at facilitating Interaction Rituals. AI Dungeon approximates the back-and-forth that is achieved at a role-playing table; AI-play in Magic the Gathering feels at least as rhythmic as playing an opponent does. And even first-person games can make effective use of teaming up. Joining the Brotherhood of Steel on a coordinated mission in Fallout 3 is a decent example.
In addition, we need to use Interaction Rituals more, because this is one of the ways that video games can be a key to unlocking a better world. For a better world, we need people to feel connected together, because nobody can achieve change alone. We need people to agree on what is right and wrong, because we need to be chasing the same goals. We need people to agree on what stuff means, to share symbols. And we need people to feel the energy in themselves to take action. In essence: we need to use this more, because we need the results of intense, effective Interaction Rituals to get to better futures. We know that video games, on paper, offer all of the ingredients to effective Interaction Rituals. We have the tool; now we need to make use of it.
Can we imagine games that make people feel connected to other players or audiences, that have elements of better futures as symbols? That have morals for and of better futures, that provide symbols to rally around and that get people excited to keep going — to the next game, the next day, and the next century.
Nothing about Disco Elysium should change. Its emphasis on failed Interaction Rituals and drained symbols seems to have been purposefully crafted that way. It is really good, and I’m okay with not liking every game out there. But I’m just praying that this exquisite writing will be applied again to a DE part 2 — perhaps a slightly more optimistic one with more than one actual intense Interaction Ritual in the game. In that case, I will make sure to let my sneaky lizard brain take over and purchase the hell out of that thing.
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